Toy Story 4: Retconning Childhood

The other dolls sat upon the shelf and looked straight before them, for it would never do to let grown-up men know that dolls were really alive.
-Johnny Gruelle, “Raggedy Ann Stories”

Movie characters that get turned into action figures lose something in the translation. It's hard to remember what they were like before we played with them, and loved them, and put a little of ourselves in them. Since the characters of Toy Story 4 are toys already, it's even more troubling: we wonder sometimes if the Buzz Lightyear we’re seeing is a random one from the toy store, and not necessarily the Buzz Lightyear. If his movie series ever lost sight of his essential emotions, he'd be reduced to his own pretty face, like the one that goes on all those themed comforters at Walmart. Until now, the series has navigated that risk with a clear emotional journey, self-control with the rules of its universe, and a lot of charm.

Toy Story 4 is the first in its series where that risk is the reality. These characters have become icons of themselves; they imply but do not show the relationships we know that they’ve had. Based on this final installment alone, would you know the depth of Woody’s feelings for Buzz? I think not. Only Woody seems capable of any character growth by the time we get to Toy Story 4. It means that beyond being more pretty than beautiful and heartily funny, this final installment’s quality depends almost entirely on one thing: the quality of Woody’s perspective. Everyone else has become a self-parody, if the animators bother to show them at all.

Toy Story is a simple tale about relationships and growing up (Woody has always been its subject) and its sequels grew up with it. Pixar now seems to be forcing this series past its natural resolution; their ability to still push thematic boundaries within those restrictions puts the movie in a sort of crisis. Since Toy Story 3 ended the crucial drama about the toys’ owner finally growing up, further exploring the role that toys have in our lives requires that we learn something new about them to justify the continuation. The script by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton decides to explore them not just in terms of being played with but in terms of their own existence beyond humans, which they’ve never had before.

Doing so isn’t heinous – it’s praiseworthy that this studio pushes boundaries even when no one is asking them to. But this particular change in context draws out the improbability of the whole concept. Toy Story 4 represents the first time I’ve ever wondered about the actual rules of the toys’ existence, who made them, why they are followed, and if they should be. It's the first time I've ever considered Toy Story to need more explaining than Johnny Gruelle's Raggedy Ann and Andy Stories, in which toys coming alive are really just a corollary for little imaginations. The fact that it explains nothing is not as mystifying as the fact that it feels like an explanation is needed.

The characters in Toy Story 4 make decisions that threaten to make their entire existence up to this point seem like a disillusionment from which you can wake up if you have enough personal ambition. This has never been the case. In a strange way, the ability to be independent enslaves these characters retroactively to a terrifying fate: born into this world to serve their masters, possessed with life, and devoted for their entire existences to the corporations that made them and the consumers that buy them. If they've had free will this whole time, then how have any of the endings where they chose to serve children been happy ones?

For the first time, Toy Story 4 makes the rules interpretable and the lives of the toys literal (they literally go from inanimate to animate in this movie, powered by a child’s belief, and contemplate their own suicide). This robs the series up to this point of its simple pleasures. It makes an analysis of the rules and logic possible, and that’s what makes it so cynical.

Woody makes decisions in this movie that contradict everything he’s learned in the series so far: to stay with Andy knowing that it wouldn’t last forever, to value his worth to a child more than the eternal ennui of becoming preserved as a collector’s item, and to move on to a new little dreamer when his old pal doesn’t need him anymore. None of that matters anymore. Now it seems like Woody's needs are the most important (is that because they mean the most to us?). This is mirrored through Bo Peep (Annie Potts): independence that would work if she were human here robs her of her most essential purpose, and replaces it with personal needs (she’s not the first toy in the series to lose a child, but certainly is the first to be proven right about ditching them). The intention to push the emotional boundaries of the toys beyond playtime is nobler than the effect, which is to make Jesse’s love of a lost girl and Woody’s fear of losing his best pal seem like unenlightened dilemmas by comparison. Empowerment in Toy Story 4 retcons the sweetness out of what came before it.

It's now actually painful to revisit the other films in the series. Do you remember what Woody said to Buzz at the end of Toy Story 2? He said, "It'll be fun while it lasts. Besides, when it all ends, I'll have ol' Buzz Lightyear to keep me company. For infinity and beyond." What are we supposed to think of that now?

This wouldn’t be so jarring if Woody (Tom Hanks) was cushioned, as he usually is, by the consciences of his buddies. But the script of Toy Story 4 disregards them to the point that they didn’t really need to be his friends at all. Notice how Jesse (Joan Cusack) and Buzz (Tim Allen) are reduced to tchotchkes in this movie: with no Toy Story knowledge, Jesse’s painful past and Buzz’s friendship with Woody would be completely unknown to you after watching Toy Story 4. Consider the sublime irony of Toy Story 2’s “factory settings Buzz,” who showed us how far that character had come to believe in living for the pleasure of someone else, in comparison to Woody’s anxieties about being left behind by the person he loves most. Now I want you to realize something very sad indeed: the Buzz on display in Toy Story 4 does nothing that could not have been done by that factory settings Buzz.

The depersonalization of the characters we already know makes Woody’s desires even more awkward: they never conflict with his friendship with Buzz, cause him particular sadness, or get challenged by those who know how far he’s come. No one calls out Woody’s choices here, as they did in Toy Story 2. The series’ core dilemma ends in an aside.

Woody has the most interaction with Bo Peep, his old lover, and the villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Gabby is recycled angst from the last two movies, all of which featured villains forsaken by children, but it still works for the reason it always has: this series’ villains are motivated by the same thing as its heroes, and that unifies its worldview. They all just want to be loved by children. Toy Story 4 at least understands this well enough to treat her with sympathy, rather than try to sell us the idea that a life of eternal torment (Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear was nailed like a war trophy to the grill of a semi and Stinky Pete was doomed to become a playmate to a preteen) is somehow justified by their ill will towards the toys we’re familiar with.

There are a lot of ways in which Toy Story 4 is a mature cartoon (the abysmal trailers preceding it seem almost tailormade to make it look classy by comparison). Whole scenes can transpire without literally naming the emotions in it and it’s glorious: Pixar puts meaningful silences in the place of the usual chatter that clutters up the kinds of kid’s movies whose creators have no faith in their audience’s ability to follow what’s happening. Consider this early scene: Bo Peep looks at Woody, asking with her eyes for him to join her as she leaves; Woody consents, but then hears Andy looking for him. His eyes tell her that he loves her enough to do it, if it was possible. Hers tell him that this is the reason she loves him in the first place. Scenes like that remind me that Pixar considers Studio Ghibli to be its most important predecessor: this scene contains a wide shot, framed by rain, that wouldn’t be out of place in the most beautiful parting of two people in any movie.

I believe it’s important to judge an animated film’s cinematography as though it’s real. Toy Story 4 is confectionary: the sweeping action shots and beautiful vistas give this movie gravity. A lurching marionette can become scary just from its placement in the frame; a bout of rain can seem like an apocalypse from so close to the ground. The visuals are gorgeous, in a vacuum (or a screenshot). My problem with them comes from the physical perspective: the toys’ competence in navigating the fairgrounds robs the action of the series’ signature danger, which has always been shown through terrific uses of scale. Recall the vastness of the store aisles in Toy Story 2, or the comedy of smallness in the street-crossing scene, the huge desolation of the play area in Toy Story 3, or the enormity of the gap between Sid and Andy’s house in the very first film. Despite taking place in a large area, there’s nothing like that in scale in Toy Story 4 (an attempt to jump across an aisle to a cabinet comes close, but notice how similar it feels in scale to the jump off the Ferris wheel). It lacks the comedy of distance that gives funny beauty to small things, and the weight of size that can make a mundane task scary through perspective (remember the walk through the field of Cheetos?). Consider the scene in Toy Story 4 in which Buzz mounts a carnival ride to launch himself high enough to see the highway. The movie doesn’t stop to consider it from the ground, to make it seem big, or difficult, or funny, or scary. In effect, it seems smaller than Sid’s front door used to feel.

Toy Story 4 is still bouncy, paced like a heist movie (all Toy Story movies seem to be) and didn’t disappoint the adults in my theater: any time the Keanu Reeves character, Duke Caboom, said a single thing, hoarse male chuckles responded in surround sound. But I never heard any children laugh at all. This brings me to an interesting thought. The original Toy Story might have been made for adults that wanted to relive their own childhood fantasies, and children who were just making them, but Toy Story 4 seems to be made only for those who want to relive Toy Story itself. This movie, for the first time in the series, doesn’t intend to bring these characters to a new generation, who would certainly not buy a Potato Head based on these proceedings. This means that as an epilogue instalment, Toy Story 4 doesn’t have the right punch of finality that Toy Story 3 had: Rex, Ham, Potato Head, Jesse, Bullseye, Slinky-Dog, Barbie, Mr. Pricklepants, and so on are characters that I don’t have to look up in order to list, but who have barely a line of reference in the script of the series finale. Is it an ensemble film if every character is in cameo? I realized afterward that the single line some of these beloved characters have in this movie is really nothing but a curtain call.

Bless Hanks for his passionate self-appraisal in every second of the Toy Story films, but the material doesn’t have zing anymore. Consider Woody’s expressions, his opportunity to express: in Toy Story 4 he never contorts his face into that knowing twinkle, egoistical sneer, frantic worry, or slap-happy laughter that we’ve seen from him. He’s as blatantly iconic in the new movie as in every promotional still; despite being a cartoon, he’s gotten creaky and old. Behind the scenes, Hanks and Allen mull over their lifelong friendship imitated by Toy Story; on camera, you would never know that these two characters were more than acquaintances.

Toys are how we engage with the world. As a child we are empowered by them to live as our heroes and as adults we are empowered in the only way adults can be: to remember what it’s like to be children again. Toy Story up to this point has been about those memories and that relationship we have with ourselves as we get older, not only as we remember the way things used to be but as we hope to be remembered by those that share our dreams. There’s nothing inherently wrong with skewing it towards modern comedic tastes (this last installment contains a suicide parable worthy of Rick and Morty: the sentient fork horrified by the crisis of being alive has more than a little Mr. Meeseeks in him). But it only works if the story stays in allegory, and Toy Story 4 pushes so far past its natural end state and towards the literal that it becomes disenchanting. It’s indicative of a universe which, like Cars before it, defies relatability through a sheer lack of consistent rules. Though funny, its funniness doesn’t spark the right feelings of finality: devoting so much time to new characters like Ducky and Bunny (Keegan and Peele), Bo Peep (she might as well be new), and Kaboom, when even Buzz’s part seems hashed together out of soundbites from his own TV spot, makes the whole thing feel unfinished. It ends with a swansong to its oldest fans that contains no melody, and a kind of airy cynicism towards the new kid that seems intended to justify the fact that we don’t care that much about her and were never going to. There’s nothing wrong with the way it looks and nothing right about the way it feels. It’s like Disney took the Pixar engine but never refueled it: these are what Toy Story fumes look like. I wonder if it will stop anyone from buying the comforters.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Josh Cooley

Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (screenplay)

John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton (story)

Woody Tom Hanks
Bo Peep Annie Potts
Forky Tony Hale
Gabby Gabby Christina Hendricks
Ducky Keegan-Michael Key
Bunny Jordan Peele
Duke Caboom Keanu Reeves
Buzz Lightyear Tim Allen
Jessie Joan Cusack
Bonnie Madeleine McGraw
Giggle McDimples Ally Maki

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